For many Americans, Memorial Day signifies the start of the summer season, as well as a much-needed long weekend filled with activities like sporting events and barbecues. But that wasn’t the original purpose of the day—and its evolution over the years has been rife with controversy.
Celebrated on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day commemorates those who have lost their lives serving their country—unlike Veterans Day, on November 11, which celebrates all people who have served in the military. Since the end of the Civil War, when it was known as Decoration Day, the holiday has been marked by solemn parades and ceremonies and the placing of flowers on the graves of fallen service members.
However, some critics have complained that the holiday has drifted too far toward frivolous fun and should be restored to a more respectful observance. Here’s how the holiday got started and why it has sparked debate throughout its history.
Who really started Memorial Day?
Even the origins of Memorial Day remain debated—and controversial. Some scholars have noted that the practice of decorating graves with flowers on specific days in spring is an ancient custom, and may thus represent the true roots of the holiday. However, most say that the holiday began in the bloody wake of the nation’s most divided time: the Civil War.
The U.S. Civil War was devastating for families on both sides of the conflict—nearly 500,000 men died, or about 2 percent of the U.S. population at the time. During the battle of Gettysburg, the Union and Confederacy lost more than 7,000 people.
The conflict ended in April 1865 and in subsequent years women, especially in the South, began tending to the graves of fallen soldiers, often regardless of which side they fought for. Their willingness to overlook past divisions was lauded in newspapers in the North. Their kindness was viewed as an olive branch to many, including northerner Francis Miles Finch, who in 1867 wrote the popular poem “The Blue and The Grey” praising those efforts.
The specific event that sparked the first Memorial Day remains a matter of debate. Some say the first Memorial Day took place on May 1, 1865, when a large group of recently freed African Americans held a parade in Charleston, South Carolina, to honor fallen Union soldiers. Dozens of other cities around the country claim the title, too, for their early Civil War remembrance ceremonies. Still other observers have pointed to President Abraham Lincoln’s commemoration of the dead at Gettysburg in 1863 as a possible origin of the holiday.
President Lyndon B. Johnson would later weigh in on the lingering question in 1966, when he officially recognized Waterloo, New York’s ceremony on May 5, 1866, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. Waterloo’s supporters argued that event was deserving of the notice because it was formal and city wide, and included closing of local businesses.
How Memorial Day became a federal holiday
After years of local celebrations, the holiday was first celebrated nationwide in May 1868, when former Civil War General John A. Logan led a commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery. He issued a proclamation calling for "Decoration Day" to be observed each May 30 across the country.
Logan, who would eventually run for vice president, called it Decoration Day because he said the fallen should be honored by "strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating, the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion." The month of May was likely chosen due to an abundance of spring flowers.
After World War I, in which America lost more than 100,000 soldiers, Decoration Day was expanded to honor all those who had died while fighting—not just those from the Civil War. The name of the holiday also gradually shifted, with Memorial Day becoming more popular in the 20th century.
Congress made Memorial Day an official national holiday in 1971. Instead of May 30, however, the day was pegged to the last Monday in May to create a long weekend. In the years since, Memorial Day evolved into a three-day weekend filled with barbecues, sports, and store discounts, which often overshadow the day's more somber origins.
How Memorial Day is celebrated today
The American Legion has called for a return to a more serious observance of Memorial Day. In 2010, the organization wrote a resolution that called for ending the long weekend and restoring Memorial Day to May 30, noting, "The majority of Americans view Memorial Day as a time for relaxation and leisure recreation rather than as a solemn occasion and a time to reflect and pay tribute to the American servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives in defense of our Nation."
The late Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who served in the Senate from 1963 to 2012, introduced legislation to move Memorial Day back to May 30 several times, without success. Some communities continue to host Memorial Day events on May 30 as well.
Many solemn observances of the day remain, however. Since 2000, people across the country have been asked to join in a moment of remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time. Bells are tolled and NASCAR races are put on hold. Flags are flown at half-mast until noon, to signify a day of mourning.
Over Memorial Day weekend, more than 135,000 people visit Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Traditionally, the president or vice president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. More than 280,000 flags are placed at headstones for all those who have laid down their lives for their country.